LIV – Property and Order

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Is
there any social problem which, at its core, is not produced by
a disrespect for the inviolability of property interests? Wars,
inner-city gang conflicts, environmental pollution, the curricula
of government schools, the "war on drugs," restrictions
on free expression, affirmative action programs, monetary inflation,
same-sex marriages, eminent domain, taxation, gun control, displaying
the "Ten Commandments," violent crime, rent control, terrorism,
government surveillance of telephone and computer communications,
zoning laws and urban planning, prayer in schools, government regulation
of economic activity, . . . the list goes on and on.

In
each such instance, conflicts are created and maintained by government
policies and practices that forcibly deprive a property owner of
decision making control over something he or she owns. Whether the
ownership interest is in oneself, or in those external resources
that a person requires in order to promote his or her interests
or to otherwise express one's purpose in life, the state is inevitably
at war with property owners.

It
is in this sense that every state — whatever its outer form, its
constituency, or its rationale for existence — is socialistic. To
whatever degree the state exists, it claims the rightful authority
to preempt the control individuals have over their property. One
can observe that political systems are popularly defined in terms
of the extent to which private property is nationalized by the state.
Communist systems are premised on the state forcibly depriving
owners of all productive assets. Less ambitious socialist systems
nationalize only some tools of production, transportation, or communication.
Fascism is a system in which title to property remains
in private hands, but control is exercised by the state.

We
have been conditioned to think of political systems in terms of
their placement on a horizontal continuum that defines positions
according to a false polarization of "Left" and "Right."
According to this view, the communist regime of Joseph Stalin was
the polar opposite of the fascist regime of Adolf Hitler. But Stalin
and Hitler were each playing the same deadly game and with the same
vicious tools. Each presumed the authority to use state power to
despoil private owners of their lives and other property interests.
They were no more opposites of one another than are two groups of
organized criminals fighting over territory within a major city.

The
question of how — and by whom — property is to be owned and controlled,
involves the more fundamental question of whether we, or the state,
own ourselves. I ask my students this question on the first day
of my property class each year. I also tell them that, by the end
of the year, however they have answered this question will make
them most uncomfortable: if they answer "yes," then they
will have to ask themselves why they allow the state to preempt
the decision making over their lives. If they answer "no,"
they must then have to explain why they would have any complaint
for anything the state — or anyone else, for that matter — might
do to them. In matters involving property and individual liberty,
the question always comes down to this: who gets to make decisions
about what?

Because
all political systems are wars against the private ownership of
property, statists must redefine social and political issues to
exclude "property" as the defining factor. Thus, a manufacturer
who is disposing of industrial wastes by releasing them into the
air, or dumping them into rivers, is charged with "pollution"
or an offense against the "environment." To correctly
characterize his actions as property trespasses against those
who either breathe in the smoke or gas, or whose lands are damaged
by the waste, would be to focus on what politically-minded people
know would threaten their regulatory schemes. If the wrong engaged
in by the manufacturer is defined as an intrusion upon an individual's
property interests, people might soon begin to regard governmental
action as property invasions as well. It
is safer to treat the act as some hazy collective wrong to "the
environment," an approach that raises the more interesting
question: do environments — whatever that word might mean
— enjoy "rights" of non-transgression that individuals
do not?

One
can go down the list of other "social" problems occasioned
by the refusal to recognize the inviolability of property boundaries
as the underlying cause. The distinction between victimizing
crimes (e.g., murder, rape, robbery, arson, etc.) and victimless
crimes (e.g., drug use, prostitution, gambling, etc.) is that
the former category involve violations of individual property interests,
while the latter do not. In fact, properly understood, the criminalization
of any voluntary action is a violation of individual property
interests.

Should
prayer be taught in schools? Who owns the schools? If a school is
owned privately, there is no conflict: the owner will decide, and
those who either do, or do not, want prayer in schools will make
marketplace decisions that affect only themselves, not others. The
same response can be made to the Alabama Supreme Court Justice who
insisted on having the "Ten Commandments" at the entrance
to the courthouse.

In
both the above examples, a conflict is created because of
the state's existence: if government schools and courthouses are
owned by the state, and if we believe in the lie that "we are
the government," then each of us will want governmental policy
to reflect our desires and interests. If these facilities
are "mine," why shouldn't they conform to my values and
purposes? Of course, someone who disagrees with what I want the
schools to do will be equally insistent that "his" school
abide by his preferences. It is in this way that politics invariably
generates conflict.

Taxation
and eminent domain involve the forcible expropriation of private
property. If a street mugger took your property in such ways we
would refer to it as "theft," but our political conditioning
will not permit such candid responses to confiscations by the state.
We have also been trained to regard government regulation, zoning
laws, and urban development policies as "necessary" forms
of planning to counter the dread terror associated with people doing
their own planning, and making their own decisions
as to what they own.

Our
politicized thinking disposes us to disregard the civilizing importance
of the property concept. As a result, when interpersonal violence
occurs — manifesting a disrespect for individual property boundaries
— many of us are at a loss to understand the causes. Such people
— who are often the principal advocates of a more expansive state
regulation of people's lives — can do no more than offer such mechanistic
explanations as drugs, television, guns, or the lyrics of rock music.
When young men go to their schools and start killing teachers and
classmates, the statists refuse to ask the most obvious question:
why did they select a government school as their target? Why have
privately owned schools been largely immune from such acts of rage?

There
is a causal connection between property ownership and responsibility
for one's decision making. As one who makes decisions over my own
life and property, I am responsible for the consequences of my actions.
But to the degree the state preempts private decision making, it
restricts an individual's sense of responsibility for his or her
actions. If the state insists upon controlling our behavior,
is it not easy to see how individuals might come to believe that
they are not responsible for their acts? Do you begin to
understand the dynamics that underlie current society's preoccupation
with "victimhood?" If "others" control my life,
why should I feel responsible for my conduct?

The
private property principle integrates the seemingly contrary notions
of individual liberty and social order. Thanks to
physicist Niels Bohr's "complementarity principle," it
is more appropriate to regard such qualities as reciprocal, symmetrical
expressions of the wholeness, rather than divisiveness, in nature.
When I am at liberty to do anything I choose with what is mine,
I am, at the same time, restricted to acting only with respect to
my own property interests. My authority ends at my boundary line.
If I want to make decisions regarding your property, I must enter
into a contract with you to do so.

It
is respect for the boundary line separating your and my property
interests that fosters both individual liberty and social
order. This is why property, liberty, and social order, are simply
different ways of talking about the same thing. We enjoy liberty
only to the degree we have unrestrained decision-making over our
lives — including the resources we require (e.g., space to occupy;
food, air, water to consume; tools to employ; etc.) in order to
live as we choose.

This
important lesson was finally learned, late in life, by the noted
Marxist, Max Eastman, who observed:

It seems
obvious to me now — though I was slow coming to the conclusion
— that the institution of private property, the dispersion of
power and importance that goes with it, has been a main factor
in producing that limited amount of free-and-equalness which Marx
hoped to render infinite by abolishing this institution.

Those
desirous of ending the social conflicts, wars, state-generated economic
dislocations, and other societal problems, would do well to heed
Eastman's insights. One might begin by making a list of all the
"problems" to which one has habitually sought solutions
in legislative halls or courtrooms, and then ask: which of these
problems involves a failure to identify and respect property interests?
From such a perspective, one might formulate solutions that do not
require you to despoil or otherwise put yourself at war with your
neighbor.

No
doubt there will be many disinclined to such an approach: men and
women who cannot rise above their political conditioning or ambitions
for power over the lives and property of others. But the pretense
of "social responsibility" with which the statists applaud
themselves and one another will at least be unmasked. One does not
encourage "responsibility" by forcibly restricting the
range of people's authority over their own lives.

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